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May 13, 2008

Press Start

Interactive M.F.A. Projects Challenge Convention

By Cristy Lytal

This year’s Interactive Media Division (IMD) M.F.A. graduates challenged themselves to discover new technology mediated experiences that could keep pace with their imaginations. The result—an array of 11 projects that range from a videogame incorporating time travel to a new way to battle traffic congestion—are on display at the “Press Start” thesis show running from May 10 to 15 in the division’s atelier at 555 W. 23rd Street.

“What we’ve tried to do with this program is really focus on the content and the user experience more than anything,” said division Chair Scott Fisher. “One of the main things is to make sure these students come out and in five to 10 years are industry leaders, not finding applications for the technology, but rather driving the technology based on what the user wants to do.”

In determining the user’s desires, student Anthony Ko decided that virtually everyone wants to know what causes traffic jams. His thesis project, SeeDrive, is a traffic awareness system that uses GPS technology to send speed data and live video directly from car to car for a quick, visual assessment of what’s behind a given backup. “Ultimately, people feel a bit less anxious when they know what’s going on,” said Ko, who is now working with the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation to find ways to deliver his invention to the marketplace.

Classmate Matt Korba suspected that users want to break the time-space continuum, and so he invented a new game mechanic in his thesis project The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. “It kind of plays like Mario except for the fact that you can record every action you do and play it back,” explained Korba. “So you can record yourself and then use your past self to help you out.”

Korba set his game in a silent-film style universe to capitalize on the slapstick element of past/present collisions. Since USC is the only interactive media program in the country situated within a cinema school, Korba was able to take classes in silent film history as part of his thesis research.

“Dean Elizabeth Daley is the reason that this division is in the cinema school,” explained Anne Balsamo, professor of Interactive Media and of Communications, and one of the curators of the thesis show. “She understood that a close relation between interactive arts and cinematic arts would be important for the growth of both industries.”

One area of interactive media that could be relevant to all storytellers—whether in film, television or electronic games—is what student Jesse Vigil calls “Adaptive Story Architecture.” His thesis, Original Fin, demonstrates this concept in a videogame about telekinetic fish. “Original Fin reads the normal choices you make while playing the game and then starts to build a personality profile of you the player, which it then uses to make changes to the story and the characters,” he explained. “It’s not complicated. It’s based on the same technology that powers the quizzes in women’s magazines like Cosmo.”

The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, by Matt Korba

Given the level of innovation on display, it’s hardly a surprise that while many IMD graduates do take jobs with traditional gaming giants like Electronic Arts, a large number have gone on to found their own companies and blaze independent trails.

“When George Lucas first graduated, people were like, ‘What? There’s a school teaching you how to make movies? That’s a joke, right?’” said thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen, (M.F.A. 2005) who attended the show. “And we are kind of like the first generation of videogame graduates. I feel the future lies in us.”